Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

"In Another Light": New Intertexts for David Dabydeen's "Turner" *

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

"In Another Light": New Intertexts for David Dabydeen's "Turner" *

Article excerpt

The sea has many voices,

Many gods and many voices.

T. S. Eliot, "The Dry Salvages" (184)

Introduction: Opening the Frame

According to its "Preface," David Dabydeen's "Turner" (1994) takes its inspiration from a celebrated painting by J. M. W. Turner entitled Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying-Typhon Coming On (Figure 1). This canvas, more succinctly known as The Slave Ship, was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1840 (the same year as the first World Anti-Slavery Convention) and is generally agreed to be based on the Zong massacre (Baucom 268)-one of the most notorious episodes in the history of the transatlantic slave trade. In this incident, which occurred in 1781, 132 sick Africans were jettisoned from the British slave ship, Zong by command of the ship's captain, Luke Collingwood, in order that their owners could make an insurance claim against their value as cargo lost at sea.1

While Dabydeen readily appreciates The Slave Ship in aesthetic terms-he calls it Turner's "finest painting in the sublime style" (Turner ix) and has recently confessed his "love" for the artist and the "epic dimensions" of his art (Pak's Britannica 187)-he is nonetheless perturbed by what he sees as the undercurrents to Turner's vision, as becomes clear from the "Preface"'s last paragraph: "The intensity of Turner's painting is such," Dabydeen concludes, that "the artist in private must have savoured the sadism he publicly denounced" (x).2

Whatever the validity of this startling assertion, the true villain of the piece, in Dabydeen's eyes, is not so much the possibly perverse artist as his admiring contemporary critic and apologist, John Ruskin, who not only gives a rapturous account of The Slave Ship in the chapter "Of Water, as Painted by Turner" in Modern Painters, vol. I (1843), but also came to own the picture when it was purchased for him by his father in December of the same year, retaining it until it was eventually sold to the American collector, John Taylor Johnston, in 1872. For Dabydeen, the problem with Ruskin's reading of The Slave Ship is that it emphasizes artistic technique-"dwelling on the genius with which Turner illuminate[s] sea and sky"-at the expense of the painting's outrageous "subject," the "shackling and drowning of Africans" (Turner ix) carried out in the name of financial self-interest. As Dabydeen suggests, such a reading is doubly problematic because it effectively renders Ruskin complicit with the actions he ignores: the atrocious historical truth of Turner's image is relegated to a casual comment in a "brief footnote" in Ruskin's text, which, as Dabydeen rather ingeniously points out, seems "like an afterthought, something tossed overboard" (Turner ix).

As if to mimic Ruskin's marginalizing gesture, Dabydeen ejects from his "Preface" the throwaway remark the footnote contains ("She is a slaver, throwing her slaves overboard. The near sea is encumbered with corpses" [Ruskin 572]), before proceeding in the poem proper to render slavery central by salvaging "the submerged head of the African in the foreground of Turner's painting" (Turner ix) and magically reawakening it to speak the text's twenty-five Cantos. At the same time, he complicates the picture, so to speak, by introducing into his poem another resurrected castaway, in the form of a "stillborn child tossed overboard from a future ship" (Turner x). Like the slavecaptain who condemns the poem's speaker to his watery fate, this miscreated figure is also named Turner, its role as all-but-silent audi- tor to the speaker's lengthy reverie making the text a kind of dramatic monologue.

Whether or not we accept Dabydeen's account of Ruskin's account of The Slave Ship, the larger point is that his engagement with his Victorian precursors alerts us to the importance of the role of intertextual dialogue in "Turner."3 For most critics, this dialogue rarely extends beyond the poem's relationship to Turner's painting, on the one hand, and Ruskin's reading of it, on the other, and there have been numerous insightful analyses of the text along these lines. …

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